By David Bass
Accountability for publicly funded school choice programs should primarily come through parent empowerment, not regulatory overreach. That’s the assessment of a new report from Notre Dame Law School scholar Nicole Stelle Garnett published by the Manhattan Institute.
The report, “Accountability in Private-School Choice,” focuses on the balance between ensuring academic accountability with not abridging private schools’ autonomy.
The research comes during what has become a banner year for school choice nationally, with 21 states voting to create, expand, or shore up their school choice programs due to the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
North Carolina is on the verge of joining that list. Lawmakers are negotiating a compromise state budget that could expand and strengthen the state’s three school choice programs, which are aimed at low- and moderate-income families and children with special needs.
In her report, Garnett makes two overarching recommendations: First, that “regulators should aim to give parents the information needed to make wise choices, thereby enabling them to hold schools accountable through enrollment decisions.” Second, that “accountability regulations ought to advance the goal of providing parents with access to more and better schools.”
“These recommendations reflect the belief that the goal of accountability should be to empower parents to make good choices for their children,” Garnett writes.
“Professor Garnett’s recommendations to make accountability in private school choice programs more parent-centric are welcome and needed,” said Dr. Robert Luebke, senior fellow with the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “Empowering parents to make better choices for their children and enhancing access to more and better schools can help correct shortcomings in the current system and show everyone why parents should be a larger part of the accountability equation.”
Garnett also points out that, frequently, regulators that aim to place punitive measures on private-school choice programs are ultimately unsuccessful at helping students.
“Many accountability debates are not really about holding schools ‘accountable,’” she writes. “Rather, they represent opponents’ thinly veiled obstructionist efforts to kill choice proposals before they are enacted and to subject private schools to government control when such efforts fail,” she said.
Garnett argues that recruiting good schools to participate in school-choice programs is a better solution than excluding bad ones.
“The exclusion of persistently failing schools from choice markets is perhaps a necessary element of an accountability regime, but it should not be the primary element,” she writes. “The long history of academic accountability efforts in the U.S. demonstrates that punitive government regulations rarely drive school improvement and that closing bad schools work as a reform only when better options are available.”
The solution, again, is to empower parents, according to Garnett. “By choosing [schools] wisely, parents can drive improvements not only in their own child’s performance but also in school quality overall, limiting the need for punitive regulatory interventions,” she writes.
To help empower parents, Garnett recommends that “information about school quality be transparent, readily available, easy to interpret, and matched, to the greatest extent possible, with the indicia of school quality that matters to parents in the real world.” She also recommends that “accountability regulations promote educational pluralism,” defined as expanding “the number and variety of schooling options available to parents, in order to provide them with more and better schools.”
The report focuses on academical accountability, but in the conclusion Garnett warns that even more worrisome are regulations aimed at curbing the First Amendment rights of private schools to free speech and freedom of religion.
“Regulations that interfere with the autonomy of private schools — especially those that threaten the religious liberty of faith-based schools — are most likely to deter them from participating in choice programs, thus undermining the increasing access to more and better schools,” she writes.